At peace in the Fens

The Great Ouse at Ely
The Great Ouse at Ely
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The landscape looks like it’s been pressed flat, but Phil Penfold discovers there’s much to lift the spirits in the Cambridgeshire city.

The drained fenland of Cambridgeshire stretches out in front of you, punctuated at times by ditches, rivers and nature reserves. For a while, there are wind farms everywhere, lazily rotating their spindly arms at a pace that you wouldn’t think could generate enough power to boil a small kettle. It is flat. Very, very flat.

Eventually on the horizon, a square grey block is visible. It is a tower. The great lantern tower of Ely cathedral.

It looks as if it could be standing on the side of a mountain. It isn’t. It’s at the top of what is a relatively small hill. It could be a galleon, on the crest of a wave – not for nothing is the building affectionately called The Ship of the Fens.

Ely maybe a city. But it has always been a small city, and dependent on the church. There are no really great houses in this community, where rich merchants or wealthy nobles and gentry might have lived centuries ago. And hardly any within a good few miles. Still today, in the cathedral, Ely’s ecclesiastical importance (self-importance, you could argue) is evident. Once you have paid at the door, you will find some astonishing stained glass, most of it Victorian. You will have to pay yet again to see the best of what medieval glass remains, in the adjacent Stained Glass Museum. And, in the church – the fourth longest cathedral in England, at 537ft – you will find more tombs in memory of previous bishops, deans, canons and all the other dignitaries that make up the Church of England (and the Roman Catholic hierarchy before them) than possibly anywhere else in the country.

Nearly every item of note has a little placard next to it, explaining the whys and wherefores of what it is, and each has a Biblical quotation. In the guidebook, there are many points at which it is suggested that “you may like to pause here to offer and prayer and light a candle”. If you complied with all requests, a full tour would probably take six hours, and the greenhouse warming effect would be substantially increased.

Nevertheless, it is an impressive place (the West Front, seen from Palace Green looks like a vast stone wedding cake), and quietly dignified – it is after all the only building on the UK mainland to be listed as one of the seven medieval wonders of the world.

It is only a short stroll across the green to Oliver Cromwell House, once the home of the vicar of the parish church, St Mary’s. Sadly, this church only opens fully on Sundays, and for an hour at lunchtime. Cromwell, who kick-started the Civil War, and who was to become Lord Protector after the beheading of Charles I, inherited the property from his maternal uncle, and with it came the position of local tax collector.

Rooms have been restored to a state with which he would have been familiar – but again, you’ll be asked to part with your cash, even though a large part of the ground floor is the Tourist Information Centre. There is it seems little in Ely, culturally, that is gratis.

And yes, yet more money will change hands if you stray into the Ely Museum, the city’s former goal, which is a typical small town collection of bits and pieces that reflect local crafts, skills and history. One of the more amusing signs on an exhibit (an elderly mangle) warns what terrors may befall if you are unwise enough to insert your fingers between the rollers, and then turn the handle.

Just around the corner are a couple of good little antique-bric-a-brac shops, one of which has an excellent second-hand book store within, called Octagon Books. That’s opposite The Lamb Pub, and almost next to The King’s Arms. The latter is a small and unbelievably friendly little pub, with a big garden area to the rear that has a magnificent view of the cathedral tower. Quality ales, a compact menu that uses as many locally-sourced ingredients as is possible, and a very nice woman called Barbara in charge. Her kitchen is tiny, and she asks visitors to be patient when ordering food – this is no “churn it out” place. But the wait is worth it – the slices of lamb that came with the Ploughman’s were mouth-wateringly good.

Eels are still caught in the River Great Ouse, and many of the local restaurants serve them up as courses on their menus. Smoked eel, from the award-winning Farmer’s Market in the main square, is one of the culinary delights of the world – far superior to smoked trout.

The marina and riverside area is a hive of activity, hugely popular with the boating fraternity, of course, but equally a great starting place for a walk along the banks of the Great Ouse. And, because the terrain is flat, dozens of cyclists pedal cheerfully past. There are lots of galleries, good picnic spots, and some not-too-expensive eating places. The Boathouse is the only restaurant in Ely that gets a mention in the Good Food Guide.

If you’re spending a few days, then there are scores of places to stay – including plenty of exceptional value farms and B&Bs. Ely, it is true, is off the beaten track – although the city station has been called The Crewe Junction of East Anglia because of the many lines that converge there.

There are special steam excursions in the peak season, many hauled by the venerable loco Oliver Cromwell. Ely is one of those places that you have to make a plan to travel to, it isn’t happened on by a cheerful accident. But it is a lovely compact city, more of a large village than a vast community, and it does sit in the middle of some wonderful countryside.

And it really doesn’t get much better than sitting in the garden of the King’s Arms, on a warm sunny afternoon, with a nutty pint of a local brew, a view over the cathedral, and a good book from Octagon, picked up for a snip.

Getting there

Ely is best reached from Yorkshire by car on the A17 to Kings Lynn and then the A10 to the city. Alternatively, there is a good East Coast service to Peterborough, which then requires a change to the cross-country service. Useful sites are www.farmstayanglia.co.uk, and www.visitely.org.uk (which also offers information on guided walks and tours). The Ely Tourist Information Centre is on 01353 662062.